Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. … For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy. [Exodus 20:8-10a,11 (NLT)]
It’s hard to think of our omnipotent, invincible, and unstoppable God getting tired after a mere six days of work but Scripture tells us He “rested” on the seventh day. The Hebrew word translated as rested, however, is shabath, meaning to stop, cease, or desist. Rather than God resting because He was exhausted; God simply stopped! I suspect it’s because He wanted to enjoy His finished creation. Picture Him sitting in the Almighty’s version of a La-Z-Boy chair, looking out at the magnificence of the universe—breathing in its aromas, tasting its sweetness, hearing its song, and delighting in its beauty.
In Exodus, when God gave the Israelites the Sabbath Day, He was telling His people to do the same thing—to stop and appreciate His blessings. Imagine how strange the fourth commandment seemed to a people who’d been enslaved by the Egyptians and cruelly oppressed by Pharaoh. They hadn’t enjoyed a day free of work in their entire lives and now they were commanded by God to do just that.
While the Bible doesn’t specifically list the kinds of prohibited labor, it alludes to several areas of work and, in the writings of the Talmud (the oral law), we find 39 kinds of work specifically forbidden on the Sabbath. Through the years, however, the rabbis further defined those 39 prohibitions with hundreds of subcategories. For example, no sewing includes no gluing, welding, or stapling; the ban on lighting a fire means that no fuel can be added to an existing fire; and no building includes not pitching a tent. The Sabbath, however, was meant to be a gift rather than a burden. Along with its prohibitions, the Talmud also encourages Sabbath activities such as temple attendance, singing Sabbath songs, reading the Torah, sleeping, hospitality, spending time with family and friends, and even marital relations!
I have a Jewish friend, the head of a large law firm, who works long hours six days a week. Friday afternoons, however, he turn off both phone and computer, stops billing over $600 an hour, and strictly observes the Sabbath. The Talmud’s many restrictions mean he and his family must plan ahead and prepare for their holy day. He has to leave work early enough Friday to be home well before sunset, the Sabbath food is cooked on Friday, the table is pre-set, lights are turned on or set on timers, the refrigerator light bulb is unscrewed, and even toilet paper and paper towels are pre-torn (since tearing is prohibited).
As they follow their Sabbath rules, my friend and his family are reminded of the holiness of the day. For them, the Sabbath isn’t a day of unreasonable restrictions because it’s about more than ceasing from work. It is a special day of rest, relaxation, peace, family, food, fellowship, worship, Scripture, and even a few board games. On a day wholly dedicated to God and peace, anything that could possibly interfere with the restful spirit of the day is avoided. For 24-hours there’s no television, radio, computers, phones, video games, or social media. Moreover, as a day designed to soothe the frayed nerves and exhaustion that come from a week’s work, there’s no talk of things like business, money, COVID, politics, the war in Ukraine, children’s grades, family conflicts, or the high price of gas!
My Jewish friend’s Sabbath is beginning to sound quite pleasant. Rather than a day of prohibitions, he sees it as a day of respite from the world and a way to reconnect with the Lord. Perhaps our Sabbath should be more like his— a day filled with worship, gratitude, retreat, prayer, and rest—a day to mindfully spend time with family, friends, God, and His word.
O what a blessing is Sunday, interposed between the waves of worldly business like the divine path of the Israelites through the sea! There is nothing in which I would advise you to be more strictly conscientious than in keeping the Sabbath day holy. I can truly declare that to me the Sabbath has been invaluable. [William Wilberforce]